Christianity,  Theology/Bible

The Evangelical Theological Society after Obergefell

Last week the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) met in Atlanta, Georgia for its 67th annual meeting. It is the first meeting of the ETS since the Supreme Court declared gay marriage to be a Constitutional right in its landmark decision Obergefell v. Hodges. How does ETS look now that we are inhabiting a post-Obergefell culture? Here are three snapshots that I observed and now pass on to you:

1. Discussion about Reparative Therapy (RT)

As I mentioned in a previous post, I participated in a session debating reparative therapy. Robert Gagnon made the case for reparative therapy, and Heath Lambert made the case against it. I also weighed-in against. Owen Strachan moderated a panel discussion with the three of us. As Gagnon noted at the beginning of the session, there is far more that unites us than divides us. We all agree about the biblical teaching on homosexual practice—which is the subject of Gagnon’s magisterial work on this topic.

Still, we had significant differences about reparative therapy and whether evangelicals ought to be making use of it. It was a spirited discussion, and I really enjoyed mixing it up with Gagnon. I got the impression that most of the people in the room were supporters of RT. That suspicion was strengthened by conversations with audience members afterward.

In my view, our differences boil down to this. Gagnon believes that RT can be useful for some people in order to help them realize their heterosexual potential. We believe that the goal of Christian sanctification is not heterosexuality but holiness. We also believe that the method of sanctification must not be reduced to a psychotherapy that has no basis in scripture.

I was surprised at how much of our conversation centered on the ethics of same-sex attraction. In one sense, Gagnon agreed with our contention that the desire for sinful sex is a sinful desire. But still, he argued hard against our interpretation of James 1:14-15. He does not believe that the desire mentioned there is sinful/culpable.

I don’t think Gagnon is right about James 1 for reasons I have already outlined in our book and in an earlier JETS article. Still, the conversation highlights the fact that there are differences among evangelicals over the ethics of same-sex attraction—which is precisely why we wrote our book. I’m hoping we can all eventually come together on this.

(Incidentally, Matthew Lee Anderson presented a paper arguing against my writings on same-sex attraction. Somehow I overlooked his paper in the program, so I missed his session. I greatly regret that. I hope to get a copy of his paper.)

2. Affirmations of Gay Marriage

I do not exaggerate when I say that the session on methodological approaches to marriage was probably the most momentous session that I have ever attended. I assign it that gravity because I heard things in that session that I never thought I would hear at an ETS session.

Here’s what the session consisted of:

Moderator: Kurt Anders Richardson (Graduate Institute of Applied Linguistics)

Preston Sprinkle (Eternity Bible College) “Jesus Was a Jew: Understanding Jesus and Same-Sex Marriages in His 1st Century Jewish (Not Our 21st Century Western) Context”

Megan DeFranza (Boston University) “Marriage for the Sake of the Kingdom: Eunuchs, Intersex, and a Theology of Marriage for All God’s Children”

Stephen R. Holmes (University of St. Andrews) “Taking Sin Appropriately Seriously: Marriage (and Singleness) as Ascesis?”

David Gushee* (Mercer University) “Methodological Essentials for Changing the Evangelical Mind & Heart Related to LGBT Christians”

Open Discussion Among Panelists

Open Discussion Among Audience and Panelists

Many readers are already aware that David Gushee is a recent convert to the gay marriage cause. Contrary to his former evangelical beliefs which were well-known through his writings, Gushee now believes that gay marriage and homosexual practice can be consistent with Christianity. Gushee made the case for gay marriage in his presentation, and what he said is consistent with what he has published elsewhere. No surprises here.

What was surprising is that Gushee was not the only person on the panel to affirm gay marriage. Gushee is the only person listed in the program as a “guest” speaker (marked with an asterisk). Unless there was a mistake in the program, all the other presenters are members of ETS. That is significant for a couple reasons.

First, DeFranza mentioned that she too supports gay marriage (which she has written about elsewhere). That is the first time I have ever heard of an ETS member openly supporting gay marriage in a presentation. Second, after the presentations, the moderator said that the papers represented a good range of “evangelical” opinion on the subject of marriage. Apparently, he even included Gushee’s presentation within the pale of evangelical possibilities.

Also noteworthy in this session was DeFranza’s contention that the existence of intersex calls into question the binary view of the sexes—that there are only two, male and female (see my previous note about this here). If I heard them correctly, all the panelists except one (Preston Sprinkle) accepted DeFranza’s questioning of the traditional interpretation of Genesis 1:27: “male and female He created them.”

Bottom line: It seems that there are some ETS members who regard support for gay marriage as an evangelical option. Moreover, the sexual binary of Genesis 1:27 seems to be up for grabs as well. If these views have been expressed before at an annual meeting, I am unaware of it. This may very well be a first.

3. The Gay Marriage Resolution

At the second business meeting, the society adopted four resolutions concerning sexuality, marriage, and gender identity. They read as follows:

(1)  We affirm that all persons are created in the image and likeness of God and thus possess inherent dignity and worth.

(2)  We affirm that marriage is the covenantal union of one man and one woman, for life.

(3)  We affirm that Scripture teaches that sexual intimacy is reserved for marriage as defined above.  This excludes all other forms of sexual intimacy.

(4)  We affirm that God created men and women, imbued with the distinct traits of manhood and womanhood, and that each is an unchangeable gift of God that constitutes personal identity.

Owen Strachan and Rob Schwarzwalder drafted these resolutions and sent them to ETS leadership last August. I made the motion that the Society consider and approve all four of the resolutions together. The resolutions passed overwhelmingly, but not without some dissent to the process. In fact, ETS business meetings are usually fairly perfunctory, but this one was anything but.

Many members stood to oppose voting on the resolution and favored referring it to the executive committee for further consideration. In other words, some members wanted to take no action on this for at least another year. One member was concerned that the marriage portion might not say enough about the possibility of divorce (number 2). Another member expressed concerns that gender language in number 4 might be unacceptable. Other members were concerned that this was the first time they had seen the resolution or even knew that it would be discussed.

Owen and I both stood up to speak against deferring this vote for another year. The motion to refer was defeated, and we got a straight up or down vote on all four resolutions. An overwhelming majority approved them. Still, there were some who voted against, and many who abstained. I am confident that the “no” votes and abstentions were mainly due to the process and not to the substance of the resolutions.

Final Observations

First, I am eager for evangelicals to have serious discussions about the ethics of same-sex attraction and about the pastoral implications of our views on these matters. This affects our appraisal not merely of reparative therapy, but also of what sanctification looks like for the ordinary believer who is engaged in what is sometimes a very lonely and powerful struggle. At the end of the day, we want to strengthen the hands of our brothers and sisters, and we do not help them by being unclear (or in error!) on this point.

Second, the Gushee marriage session and the adoption of the resolutions came about independently, but certainly they are related to one another. They invite us to ask the boundaries question again. I know this is an old discussion and one that has been fraught with difficulty within the ETS. But how can we avoid it?

The ETS’s doctrinal basis only requires a belief in the Trinity and Inerrancy. Ray Van Neste has argued that in the wardrobe of doctrinal statements, the ETS’s is a bikini. It covers some essentials but does not cover nearly enough. Is it possible that a member in good standing who affirms Trinity and Inerrancy might come to a conclusion that favors gay marriage? If they did, on what grounds could anyone possibly object?

One could make a case that gay marriage is incompatible with a belief in the Trinity and Inerrancy. But that kind of case was already made during the Open Theism controversy. And that case failed in the membership challenges of Clark Pinnock and John Sanders.

One could make a case that the doctrinal basis might be expanded to clarify our commitments on these matters. But the ETS has already shown its aversion to expanding the doctrinal basis. Ray Van Neste and I proposed such an expansion only seven years ago, and the Society overwhelmingly defeated it. It is one thing for the Society to adopt a non-binding resolution. It would be something else entirely for it to accept an amendment to its doctrinal basis. I could be wrong, but I can hardly imagine the Society approving one now on a matter that will necessarily implicate the gender issue.

Bottom line: The ETS in recent years has shown little interest in drawing more boundaries or in a strict enforcement of the current boundaries. If that situation holds, shouldn’t we expect more presentations from members affirming gay marriage? I guess we’ll see. In any case, ETS 2015 seems to have been a watershed moment for the marriage issue.


  • Michael King

    If the two basic beliefs of ETS are The Trinity and inerrancy, why aren’t these obvious non-believers asked to resign their memberships? Any one that voted against the proposals, non-binding or not, should also be asked to leave. It seems that ETS perhaps has become an unimportant entity that welcomes unbelief.

  • buddyglass

    Out of curiosity: are there stats available on the church membership of ETS members? I’d be curious to see how that breaks down.

  • Alistair Robertson

    Thanks for alerting us to the discussion on Reparative Therapy. only has Robert Gagnon’s talk at this stage. I found it encouraging, not least because he outlined many of the same problems with the no-RT position that I had identified.

    But keeping Proverbs 18:17 in mind, I look forward to hearing a response from you, Denny, and Heath Lambert when makes them available.

  • Andrew K

    The notion that “intersex” individuals calls into question the binary view of the sexes is analogous to paraplegic individuals calling into question the notion of humans as bipedal.

    • Christiane Smith

      how far does the ‘binary view’ extend into the revelation that we are made ‘in the image of God’ ?

      I have always thought that what made us ‘human’ was our ability to make choices between ‘good’ and ‘evil’, and that we had a freedom to ‘choose’ the good which Our God has aligned with ‘choosing life’ . . . I do not see this characteristic as being affected by any dichotomy of wills according to whether we are ‘male’ or ‘female’ or what some have termed ‘inter-sex’, a term which doesn’t allow for closely defined positions on any scale or range of the diversity of what presents as variances in a person’s sexual identity or physical condition

      I am not sure how deeply the ‘binary view’ is considered to impact the make-up of the human person as to the dignity of that person as made in the image of God. That is something I hope to explore and try to comprehend. Right now, the view, as I perceive it, seems to cut too deeply into the make-up of what makes us human persons, and does not seem to ‘work’ effectively to produce clear understanding of what these ‘inter-sex’ folks are experiencing OR to provide a wide-enough platform for ministering to people who don’t fall neatly into the ‘binary’ system and are struggling
      to live out their faith in Christ in a world that rejects them AS ‘Christians’ . . . the harshness of that rejection seems to me to grow up out of the ‘binary’ view that is too narrowly-defined.

      Any ministry to ALL people, and I think DENNY has understood this, should focus on our identification with Christ Himself, and our efforts to conform to His image. This is for me a healthier viewpoint than the demands to conform to one of two patterns in the ‘binary’ system, as regards those who suffer from being ‘outside’ the ‘norm’ in their understanding of their own sexual identity.

      • Andrew K

        It’s got nothing to do with “what makes us human” or “sexual identity” or “divergent will” or any other terms or phrases someone wants to introduce to make what’s clear all foggy.

        Humans, like other mammals, come in two varieties: those capable of bearing children and those capable of fathering children. Those physically incapable of either do not make up a separate category.

        This point has been pretty universally understood up to now.

  • Adam Melton

    Denny — It seems like you might be diminishing (or forgetting) the interdenominational nature of the movement that is evangelicalism. Why think that a faith movement, of which there is little by way of defining standards, shouldn’t be diverse in there opinions? You say, “It seems that there are some ETS members who regard support for gay marriage as an evangelical option.” I would say that the nature of evangelicalism is that of options (for better or for worse). Here we see the lack of uniformity, and the movements non-confessional nature rear its ugly head. In short, this sort of thing is to be expected in evangelicalism, and unless we want to move the movement towards a more confessional disposition, then we ought not get too worked up by things such as this.

  • Steve Burdan

    Interesting! Time is now more than ever – a robust, coherent and positive approach and encouragement for Adult Singles and Singleness as an acceptable option for the Evangelical church community.

  • Ben Wright

    How does a session like the one with Gushee get on the program? Looking at the ETS ExComm it seems to me there should be at least a bare majority with sufficient convictions to circumvent such nonsense.

  • R. F. White

    With regard to the opposition to the resolutions on marriage et al., ETS has done unexpected things over the years. I can remember the vote on the resolution calling for the addition of the language pertaining to the Trinity to the ETS doctrinal statement. The addition passed, of course, but opposition to that addition came from several well known, high profile, otherwise reliable quarters. I was naive and frankly shocked to see this. From what I recall of the interaction, the rationale for the opposition, for some at least, was that the society was intended to affirm and defend inerrancy and little else. Similar interaction took place over justification by faith during the ECT days. In my years of attending, there has been little interest in having the society’s doctrinal statement to reflect the historical distinctives of the term in its title. It would be more accurate for its name to be the ITS, the Inerrantist Trinitarian Society. Honorable, but incomplete.

  • Curt Day

    There is nothing to disagree with in the gay marriage resolution though a refinement could be made for those who seek a remarriage is biblically acceptable. The key in this issue all along has been whether what we will distinguish between what we will allow in society from demand of the Church and preach to the world.

    Some kind of distinction must be made if we wish to share society with unbelievers as equals. If we don’t so wish to share society that way, not only will we find fewer opportunities to share the Gospel with those outside our circle, we will continue to see further divisions in the Church over this issue.

      • Curt Day

        Certainly, there must be distinctions made between what we would deem as being acceptable behavior and beliefs as practiced by members of the Church from those behaviors and actions practiced by those who would be members of good standing in society. If we do not make the enough of the proper distinctions, we will be forcing our religous views on nonChristians in society.

  • Wally Morris

    Evangelicals will have to decide if denying what the Bible teaches about moral truth – homosexuality – is also a denial of inerrancy. Accepting homosexual practice and marriage is denying what the Bible says about homosexual practice and marriage, i.e, that the Bible is wrong. Philosophical and hermeneutical gymnastics cannot avoid this conclusion. I wrote about the ETS earlier this year in a 6-part series at Proclaim and Defend (…)

Comment here. Please use FIRST and LAST name.